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Interview To Neal Stephenson on the release of his's book DIAMOND AGE

 

QUESTION: What got you interested in science fiction?

STEPHENSON: I come from a long line of propeller heads, so I guess I've grown up being pretty familiar with science and technology. When I was a kid I inhaled science fiction, especially Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein. All that has certainly shaped how I understand and think about things. It comes through in the writing.

QUESTION: Did you ever want to become a scientist?

STEPHENSON: I studied physics in college, and also some geography, which is a somewhat technical field. It makes use of computers and mathematical models and simulations and stuff. I never really pursued a career because in order to do that I probably would have had done graduate school at some point. It happens I was able to publish my first novel, The Big U., before I made the fatal misstep of actually entering graduate school.

QUESTION: There's a lot of science and history in THE DIAMOND AGE. How much research do you do?

STEPHENSON: I don't do the research in the sense in the same that one might research a dissertation. It all comes from the imagination, but within broad limits I can influence the direction my imagination will go by immersing myself in a particular historical literature. For THE DIAMOND AGE that was Chinese history, and especially the history of Europeans in China.

QUESTION: Nanotechnology plays a big part in THE DIAMOND AGE. What exactly is nanotechnology?

STEPHENSON: Nanotechnology is constructing virus-sized machines and computers by plugging individual atoms together like Tinkertoys. These machines work a lot like the machines we're used to, except that they happen to be millions or billions of times more efficient and reliable, as well as being much more compact, than the machines we have today. With machines that small and powerful, you can actually accomplish some of the things I picture in THE DIAMOND AGE. Things like completely interactive computers that are the size and shape of a sheet of paper. Or processors that make anything from food to furniture right in your home. Or entire buildings made out of diamond. The possibilities really are endless.

QUESTION: Do you think we'll ever actually get nanotechnology?

STEPHENSON: We'll get it. I would guess that in the next generation we'll start seeing some basic applications of nanotechnology, and then it will be widespread in the generation following that.

QUESTION: Where do you think today's technology is taking us?

STEPHENSON: Something that comes up in both Snow Crash and THE DIAMOND AGE is the trend towards neo-tribalism. Modern nation-states are defined by borders. Because it's hard to defend a long convoluted boarder, each nation-state tries to keep its border as short as possible. Basically, they become big and round. Now that security and military technology are beginning to make it possible to defend an arbitrarily long and complicated border, there's really no need to have big nation-states. Instead, states can be as small as a 7-Eleven or as small as an individual person's body. You can see a bit of this in modern walled communities.

With the growing sophistication of security systems it's not too much of a leap to go from what we have today to what I showed in Snow Crash . Then compound that technology with the power nanotechnology offers, and you can jump from what's shown in Snow Crash to the security systems that the phyles use in THE DIAMOND AGE.

QUESTION: In THE DIAMOND AGE, you have a group that has adopted the social conventions of the 19th century Victorians. Where did you get your idea for these New Victorians?

STEPHENSON: A lot of people aren't aware that the rigid conduct that we associate with Victorians wasn't just a hold over from earlier traditions. During the Georgian and Regency Eras things were pretty wild, at least in London. There was a great deal of libertinism and uncontrolled behavior. In many ways theVictorians were reacting against all that. I don't see any reason it couldn't happen again. There's also the widening gap between the sort of a highly literary, highly paid so called cognitive elite, and everyone else. That's a subject that's been covered quite a bit recently with books such as The Bell Curve.

QUESTION: You have a very unique view of the future. Do you consider yourself a pessimist, an optimist, or neither?

STEPHENSON: I think it's possible to be both pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. As I said, there's a widening gap between people who know how to think and can pass that skill on to their children, and people who don't know how to think and pass that ignorance on to their children. There are grounds to be very optimistic about the former group and pessimistic about the latter group.

I would like to think that things will be better in the future than what we've seen in the 20th century. Take Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and pull them all together, and the 20th century has not been one of our better ones. There's a specific reference made to this in THE DIAMOND AGE when someone talks about how it makes more sense to look at the 19th century as a stable social model rather than the 20th.

QUESTION: If you could choose any time in history, which era would you want to live in? Would you want to live during the Diamond Age?

STEPHENSON: As you probably see from THE DIAMOND AGE, I'm pretty fascinated by the Victorian Era. On the other hand, it was probably a pretty bad era in which to have major surgery done or come down with a case of tuberculosis. I suppose that I can't very well complain about my current situation in life. This is as good a time to live as anyxbetter than most. I think that the Diamond Age would be a pretty interesting time to live. I think if you belonged to one of the more stable and successful phyles like the New Victorians it would enable you to experience many of the benefits of modern technology and fewer of the nagging uncertainties. The Neo-Victorians in that scenario don't have to be worrying about carjacking and drive-by shootings.

QUESTION: In a "Diamond Age," that is to say an age in which control and creation of matter are completely in our control, what has value? Can any tangible "thing" be said to have value, or does information itself become our new currency?

STEPHENSON: To begin with, keep in mind that in the world of the book, the technology hasn't achieved 100% penetration yet. I read a statistic somewhere to the effect that more than half of the people in the world today have never made a telephone call. It's a similar situation in The Diamond Age. So the old traditional sources of value haven't completely gone out the window yet. In places where the technology has become ubiquitous, an important source of value is the software needed to run the matter compilers - that is, the instructions for creating different products. This makes software engineers very important. Another, less important source of value is unique, handmade items that can't be created by nanotech - in TDA, original works of art, handmade furniture, and the like are highly prized by the affluent. Beyond that, everything is entertainment, and so entertainment is probably the biggest industry of all.

QUESTION: In TDA, it is made explicit that while all things can be created, some things cannot be created easily (ie. "real" wood, "real" paper, "real vegetables"). Is this a necessary result of the complexity of the natural universe, or is this a question of "New Victorian" self-deception, an all-too-human need to assign value to certain objects at the expense of others?

STEPHENSON: You could create a piece of wood or a vegetable, but it would be a lot of work for a mediocre result. There's a lot more disorder and randomness in natural objects, and to create a nanotech object with that amount of disorder would require a whole lot of expensive detail work. The result would be something that (as you say) could be created simply by planting a seed. It would be like using a million-dollar CAD/CAM system to create a two-by-four.

QUESTION: Nell, one of the main characters of TDA, lives two lives - her day-to day, dangerous "real" world existence and her adventures as Princess Nell, via her magical "Young Lady's Illustrated Primer." In some ways the hyperreal/simulated life of the Primer overtakes and replaces the "real" life Nell lives, in a way that earlier generations of fantasy stories never did (Narnia, Oz, etc.). In this light, can one set of experiences be thought of as more real than another?

STEPHENSON: That's a deeper level of analysis than I really get into. I just write the stuff. If I started acting as both critic and writer, I'd go crazy.

QUESTION: The future, as seen in both TDA and your earlier novel Snow Crash, appears to be a world of cultural fragmentation in which conventional group identification has been discarded and smaller, autonomous, self-regulating groups have arisen. Do you see this as inevitable, given the direction are our present society is headed? Is this in any way desirable?

STEPHENSON: I don't know about "inevitable" but I do think we will see significant movement in this direction. Of course all cultural changes tend to be damped out over time and so it might not reach the extreme that is described in my books. I do think that it is desirable to a point, given the wretched excesses of state power that we have seen in the twentieth century. When old-fashioned nineteenth-century nation-states suddenly have the power of modern technology at their disposal, the results can be frightening.

QUESTION: Both SC and TDA concern themselves with questions of "borders" and "security," on both the macro and micro levels. Burbclaves and phyles are most recognizable by their border defenses. Individuals in both novels are in danger of being inundated by information, through various orifices and with various negative consequences. For example, in SC hackers are in danger of becoming part of a mass of pre-linguistic latter-day babblers while in TDA people are in danger of losing their egos (and superegos) as they are incorporated into a mass mind parallel processor. As individuals, then, do you think we are in danger of losing our boundaries...of being gradually unable to distinguish "me" from "not-me?"

STEPHENSON: This is seemingly a natural weakness of human beings, and it manifests itself in every age in a different way. The Salem witch hysteria was a continuation of old European practices. Arthur Miller drew a parallel between Salem and McCarthyism. And recently we've seen conspicuous parallels between witch trials in the past and certain highly publicized ritual child abuse cases. So I don't know that it's any more dangerous now than it has been in the past. I hope that information technology and the Net, properly used, will serve as a tool to fight that kind of thing.

QUESTION: In SC, you play with the concept that all information (ie. language) is a virus, transmitted by ideas. In TDA, this metaphor becomes literal with the perfection of nanotechnology. If information is a virus, what is the inoculation? Ignorance? Isolation? More information?

STEPHENSON: Not all information is a virus. Some pieces of information can spread in a manner reminiscent of viruses, when planted in the right medium. This does not mean that the information is a virus; the virus thing is just an analogy. To extend the analogy a bit, I'd say that the best defense is a good immune system - that is, you need to expose yourself to a lot of ideas, develop some judgment, exercise the ability to defend yourself against bad ones.

QUESTION: TDA is, in some senses, a very playful novel. It's a 20th century novel written with elements of 19th century episodic structure (ie. descriptive chapter titles) that describes a futuristic super-novel that allows an infinite amount of interactivity and animation. If you had the option, would you prefer to be writing a Diamond-age interactive novels or present-day ink and paper novels? And does the latter form have any advantages over the former?

STEPHENSON: Ink and paper, definitely. Humans have been doing linear narrative for as long as we've had the ability to talk, so it's hard-wired into our brains now, to some extent. Books are a technology that has been perfected over the course of many centuries. Most importantly, a single author can create a book simply by sitting down and writing it, whereas to produce an interactive media work, one needs a large budget and a staff of expensive technicians.

QUESTION: Both SC and TDA involve world-building hacker protagonists. Is their power in some way akin to an author, but with better scripting tools? Do you see Hiro, Hackworth and Nell as doing the same basic work you do, just in a different medium?

STEPHENSON: This is another analysis question which I will leave to people who are into that kind of thing.

QUESTION: Your work has been described by some as "post-cyberpunk" (whatever that means). And yet both TDA and SC begin with detailed techno-fetish descriptions of futuristic weapons systems, something very much in line with conventional cyberpunk writing. Is this done with a certain amount of irony, especially considering that most of the combat of TDA and SC involve low-tech swordfighting?

STEPHENSON: Sure. I don't think it's too hard to see the irony. Especially in the case of Bud (the guy in TDA) who starts out looking like a classic cyberpunk character but meets a well-deserved, ignominious demise very early in the story.

QUESTION: Both SC and TDA feature well-written, strong young female characters, a particular subset of human beings that has been notoriously underrepresented in science fiction. What has enabled you to create such interesting characters (or why haven't others been able or eager to do the same)?

STEPHENSON: I've answered this question so many times I don't know how to answer it any more.

 

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